The Best Days of the 2021 Whitetail Rut
Mark your calendar. Here are the seven days you absolutely must be in the deer woods this season.
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All whitetail hunters perk up when they hear the word “rut.” For most of us, I imagine, a sort-of pictogram of the event pops up in our heads: bucks working scrapes, mad chases through the timber, a breeding pair laid up in some oddball cover, a monster buck crossing a road in the middle of the day….
All of these are accurate scenes that together define a process we describe with a single word. But of course, the “rut” is a dynamic event with quasi-distinct phases that often overlap and even repeat themselves. For example, it’s easy to imagine the chase phase, that frenetic period immediately preceding peak breeding and lockdown. Yet as soon as lockdown ends for one buck, seeking and chasing begins again, followed by another lockdown.
So yeah, if figuring out the exact timing of the rut seems maddening, it can be. But don’t worry. You don’t have to do it. All you have to do is get in the woods on the seven days below. It’s true that predicting the rut before it happens is a little like the best guesses of preseason football prognosticators. But what fun is any season without some bold predictions? So here are mine. Based on nearly 40 years of obsessive deer hunting, almost as many years interviewing experts and biologists, plus moon phases and a little vudoo, here are my picks for the best days of the 2021 whitetail rut. So mark your calendar and get out there.
Best Day of the Rut No. 1: October 24
This day gets the nod for kicking off the late pre-rut period for a couple of reasons. First, we’re a few days past the last full moon (Oct. 20), which means morning movement should be good and getting better. Second, cooling temps should have bucks working scrapes and rublines within their home range, with daylight activity ramping up in a big way. Finally, because the 24th is the anniversary of when I arrowed my first P&Y buck, I always hunt it, and it’s been a consistent producer in the many seasons since.
If you haven’t started hunting mornings yet (smart move, unless conditions are perfect), this is the day to start. Bucks are going to get to bed a little later starting now and through the rut, and you can be waiting for them. Keep scouting for fresh buck sign, especially for stuff close to the top feeding areas, for your afternoon hunts. Once the rut kicks into full gear, the freshest sign doesn’t necessarily predict where a buck will show up—but right now and through the next week or two, it does. So if the hottest sign you find dictates a slight move in your stand set up, go in a noon and move the set, then hunt it that same evening. A stand-location shift is a hassle, but do it, because it can make all the difference.
Best Day of the Rut No. 2: October 31
That Halloween is a great day for arrowing a big whitetail is almost a cliche….but cliches are usually based in truth, and this is no exception. While November has earned its reputation as the best big buck month of the year, if I know where a good buck is living, I’d much rather hunt him in October. Testosterone has been building in bucks for weeks now, which makes them vulnerable, but the fact that most bucks are still hanging in their core areas now also makes them predictable. That’s a good combination for you. Meanwhile, by this date, a few does have either come into estrous or will very soon, and these early bloomers will have mature bucks on the prowl. That means both buck core areas and doe feeding areas can be on fire today. You can hunt the former in the morning, to catch a buck coming back to bed, and the latter in the evening.
Don’t forget to pack your grunt tube and rattling antlers. Now is one of the top times to use them, as bucks are actively seeking other deer and using their ears to find them. So get out and tag your dandy so you can be back in time to take the kids trick-or-treating.
Best Day of the Rut No. 3: November 6
With another full moon (November 4) in the rear view, a morning hunt should be on fire today. This is the hyper time, where the seeking phase of the rut morphs into full-bore chasing. Bucks have been feeling the hormone dump for weeks, and with a doe or three surely being bred by now, they will be desperate to find mates of their own. Any day in November is bound to be good, but in my experience, the single-digit days are the best of all. The action is intensem and there’s not even a hint of lockdown yet.
If you have a decoy or decoys now is a great time to dust them off and stake them out. Since you’re using your calls and antlers (which you are, right?), a deke is the perfect closer for a buck who responds to your calling, but hangs up out of range, trying to see the deer he heard. If you’ve never watched a dandy come in to clean the clock of a junior-buck decoy, you’re missing one of the coolest shows in whitetail hunting.
Best Day of the Rut No. 4: November 10 — The 2021 Overall Best Day of the Rut
This day marks the start of peak breeding across much of whitetail range and gets my nod as the best day of the 2021 rut, and the entire season for that matter. Nearly half of all the does in any given area will be in estrus or on the cusp by today, and bucks will responding in kind. In only a few days, we’ll be in full-blown lockdown mode, and killing a buck will become more challenging. So jump on this frenzy of breeding activity and get your tag on that giant. Even the oldest, wariest, vampire buck can turn into a plodding moron when the smell of estrous fills the air like it will today. Plus, gun season has opened in some states (including mine), which should put more deer on their feet.
It’s critical to be in the right place today, so if you’re fortunate enough to have several areas to hunt, do your homework leading up to this date to figure out where the rut is really popping. I hunt three farms plus a bunch of public land, and many of those tracts are spaced miles apart. If the action is dead on one spot due to lockdown, I pull up stakes and hit another spot. I can’t tell you how many times making such a move puts me into a red-hot spot. It also proves that, despite appearances, all the does in a 10 mile square area are not being bred at exactly the same time.
Best Day of the Rut No. 5: November 20
While breeding activity is definitely past peak in most areas, an X-factor is in play that makes this a must-go day. The bulk of firearms seasons are either open or opening today, and while that added pressure can be problematic for some, it’s actually a bonus if you’re prepared. Big bucks push does they’re tending to places where they won’t be disturbed, and on the gun opener that means gnarly swamp edges, steep timbered ridgetops, or that wooly river bottoms that no one will visit for fear of getting wet feet. Wiggle into such a spot, settle in for the day, and don’t be shocked when a giant appears.
I know there are hunters who dismiss the use of books, games, or smartphones as a deer-alerting distraction, but I’m (mostly) not one of them. I’d bail from a stand without some entertainment now and then, and a good book keeps me in the saddle and actually results in more deer sightings. I scan trails between almost every paragraph, and to my knowledge I have yet to miss, or alert, an incoming whitetail. Wait…I take that back; I once spooked a 6-point buck that caught me laughing at a great line from A River Runs Through it. Totally worth it.
Whether you need entertainment of not, today is a great day to sit from dawn to dark.
Best Day of the Rut No. 6: November 26
Okay, we’ve been at it hard for almost a month now, hunting at every chance granted to us by family and work, and we’re tired to the bone. And peak breeding activity? That’s solidly in the rear-view mirror. But this is the time to screw up your enthusiasm and think of this: your chance of killing the biggest buck in the neighborhood is probably today. The reason is simple, actually. All those junior wannabe studs are tired and famished, looking for food and a sunny hillside to lay down and rest on. But Bubba? He’s still got some gas in his tank and every synapse in his body is still firing on breeding mode. With another full moon behind us, it’s time to get in the timber at first light and do your best to grind out another entire day of hunting. You’ve had Thanksgiving dinner for a fuel source, and now it’s giant time.
Best Day of the Rut No. 7: December 4
Today is a new moon. (There’s also a solar eclipse, although not many in the U.S. will be able to see it, and there’s no reason to think it’ll affect deer behavior.) This moon is often associated with better deer movement, but even that is a bit of a sideshow today; the main event is the first pulse of young does that will enter their first estrus cycle. Of course we’re talking a small number of deer, but if you’ve ever been around one of these ready fawns, you known exactly how exciting the buck action can be.
Mature bucks, while hungry and tired from a month of chasing and breeding, will amp up their energy to chase and breed these first-timers. Plus, the arrival of cold weather has deer concentrated around high-quality food sources, so finding this late-rut action isn’t that difficult. Bundle up into some warm clothes, make sure your bow or muzzleloader is winter-ready, and get out there so you can tag that late-season monster.